Those who argue against the idea that video games are a viable form of art will often cite the problem of ludonarrative dissonance – that is, inconsistencies in the relationship between the fixed narrative of a game and the narrative that is developed by the player through their choices in gameplay. One of the major issues with this discrepancy is that the player will often become disconnected from the fixed narrative as they focus in on individual challenges within the game. When fully engrossed in say, an attempt to get past a single mission in Halo, the player will likely forget about the larger story at hand (at least briefly) if they have been stuck in the same fifteen minutes of gameplay for two hours. Many game developers are well aware of this problem, and see it as part of an ongoing struggle to forge a deeper connection between the games they create and the people who play them.
Hotline Miami has a unique approach to ludonarrative dissonance, in that it dismisses the idea that disagreement between fixed narrative and ludonarrative is problematic in the first place. Many have said that the thematic focus of Hotline Miami is primarily a critique of video game violence. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong, but I do think that this reading misses a larger point; Hotline Miami makes an argument for appreciation of video games outside of standard conventions relating to narrative and thematic content, suggesting that neither of these things ultimately draw players in as much as gameplay, aesthetic, and atmosphere.
I’m not going to say that Hotline Miami isn’t about video game violence. It is, but not in the same way that Grand Theft Auto V, or any other notoriously violent game is. These games show the player shockingly violent scenarios that are often justified by the game’s developers and critics as some sort of inward-looking experience on the part of the player to determine how much violence they can endure in a video game (e.g. the infamous torture scene in GTA V). The primary purpose of the violence is to elicit a raw emotional reaction. Hotline Miami, on the other hand, directly asks the player “do you like hurting other people?” within its cut-scenes, but hardly offers any storyline more concrete than this and other brief bits of vague dialogue. The game does require the player to kill countless hostile enemies in order to progress through each stage, but it also offers several opportunities to kill people who are isolated and do not fight back, which proves to be among the most dull experiences to be had within the game. The suggestion here is that no, the player does not like killing people – at least not for the sake of killing.
So what does the player enjoy? In Hotline Miami, I think that the player enjoys fast-paced strategic gameplay, bright neon colors, and a stimulating soundtrack – all of which are delivered immaculately. There is admittedly an unprecedented amount of blood and violence, but these are byproducts of what the player really enjoys – the engrossing, stimulating moment-to-moment gameplay that keeps them on the edge of their seat. And this is where narrative dissonance comes in: it is not a problem in Hotline Miami, because the player is not required to follow any sort of plot in order to enjoy the game to the fullest extent. Even if a player decides to rigorously commit these events to memory, they won’t gain a greater understanding than a player who doesn’t prioritize story in their gaming experience. Instead, the narrative is only enjoyed by the player to the extent that it contributes to the unique aesthetic and atmosphere of the game – inescapable elements that they would be drawn in by regardless of how interested they are in a game’s storytelling. One can’t complain about ludonarrative dissonance in Hotline Miami because there was never meant to be any cohesion between the fixed narrative and ludonarrative to begin with. This is further reinforced by the game’s ending, in which the player confronts characters who are stand-ins for the game’s developers. Hotline Miami puts the mechanics of the developer-player relationship flat out on the table, and is not jaded or displeased with them but instead proud; proud that it can provide such a unique and captivating experience through a medium that is regarded as being artistically limited. There are many games that make an argument for their own artistic merit, but Hotline Miami makes an argument for the merit of the medium as a whole.